Site will track government contracts

With an infusion of cash from another good-government group, a White House watchdog is planning to build a database that makes it easier to track which companies get government contracts and grants.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group just founded to shine light on how government operates, plans to use part of its substantial funds to help OMB Watch create a free database that would allow users to search who gets government grants and contracts.

As its name suggests, OMB Watch pays particular attention to policies emanating from the Office of Management and Budget, which plays a key role in writing powerful federal-agency rules.

“Now it is very difficult to get that information in the aggregate,” OMB Watch spokeswoman Anna Oman said.

She said the group hopes to show whether access to federal officials because of the government’s revolving door or from political campaign contributions plays any role in contract awards.

Sunlight’s website, www.sunlightfoundation.com, contains several links to stories criticizing lucrative contracts awarded for work in Iraq and elsewhere.

Information on government contracts and grants is public, except of course for defense or intelligence work allotted through classified budgets. Two government databases keep track of the information: the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, which lists grants, and the Federal Procurement Data System, which lists contracts.

Other pay sites provide more searchable and other user-friendly functions, including a system maintained by Hoovers, a business information company. Oman said OMB Watch hopes to build a system that provides users free, easy access to the data.

“The idea is to give the public a clear picture of what is going on,” she said.

The grant to OMB Watch is one of several “transparency grants” offered by the Sunlight Foundation, which held a news conference yesterday to describe its mission.

The financial gift to OMB Watch is more than $230,000, the largest among four grants. The foundation has also given money to the Center for Media and Democracy, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Project on Government Oversight.

The Center for Media and Democracy is using the Sunlight money to develop “Congresspedia,” a website that lists biographical information and other details on each member of Congress. The site will be similar to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that allows visitors to edit entries.

Michael Klein, a securities lawyer, also is helping to underwrite the group; he is also serving as its chairman. Ellen Miller, a former director of the Center for Responsive Politics, is the group’s executive director.

The idea behind Sunlight, which takes its name from a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis that sunlight is the best disinfectant, is to leverage the accessibility and functionality of the Internet to allow voters to keep an eye on their representatives.

Miller said that public discontent with Congress has reached a “high-water mark” but that reforms now being debated on Capitol Hill will do little to reassure voters.

Information on Congresspedia will include lawmakers’ key contributors and their financial disclosure statements, which are now only available in paper copy in a basement office in the Capitol complex and on politicalmoneyline.com, a website that tracks political donations and other money-in-politics issues.

By providing more information, Sunlight will empower “citizens to be their own best watchdog,” Miller said.

Oman said OMB Watch hopes to have its database up and running by October.